Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Monday, February 14 2000, 8:35 PM
Albert Memmi's analyses of colonialism and racism have long cast a shadow of gentleness, an understanding of human complexity. He has avoided political dogmatism while having spent a lifetime as an engagé Sartrean intellectual. Perhaps part of the reason for the kindliness in Memmi's authorial persona is that a personal voice, one that often injects a note of ironic humor, never remains far from his analyses. Memmi's books capture the portrait not just of a reflective writer, but of an enjoyable man.
New work from Memmi has too long been absent from U.S. publication. The Colonizer and the Colonized, published in France in 1957 and in English translation in 1965, first created his reputation in the United States. During the '60s and '70s Memmi provided fresh analytic tools for that initial generation of American graduate students pursuing postcolonial theory. Memmi's theorizations were defined by the complexity of his own compound perspectives as an early Tunisian nationalist and Marxian anti-colonialist, as a Jew encountering antisemitism among both colonizers and colonial subjects, and as an immigrant to metropolitan France. For those concerned with multiple political subjectivities, particularly among feminists who understood feminized subjectivity in terms of colonialism, Memmi opened new interpretive possibilities for the dance between multiple political positionalities. For those concerned with inter-ethnic tensions and conflict in the Middle East, Memmi has been an Arab-Jewish cultural bridging figure who wrote Pillar of Salt and Arabs and Jews.
Memmi belongs to that older North African intellectual generation where national subjectivity stood coequal with or was granted precedence over personal subjectivity. This is a generation whose work and political experience postmodern French theory implicitly has relied upon --- or reacted against --- but seldom acknowledged. One wonders from where Deleuze and Guattari's theorizations of nomadism would have emerged if not from a France so profoundly altered by the nomadism of once-colonized North African immigrants? It's not difficult to read the facile representationalism of Baudrillard as postmodern resistance to an older anti-colonial insistence, such as appears in Zobel's Rue des Cases-Negres, on the de-privileging of metropolitan representations. Is not a theoretical advocacy of representational unreality an avoidance of the reality of human suffering from the effects of violence? Memmi's work brings that same gravity of colonial experience to bear. Very little in French theoretical work seems to have gone beyond Memmi's theorizations of colonialism and race, with the exception of Tzvetan Todorov's Nous et les Autres (1989).
Memmi's readings of racism echo with the traumatic and massively violent effects of de-colonization in twentieth-century North African and French history, whereas most recent Euro-American work on race has centered on domestic social structures and representation alone. That is a refreshing difference to remember, for 'race' remains an inherently transnational ideology that undergirds economic neo-colonialism. To return to the mid-twentieth century anti-colonial experience that weaves itself through Memmi's writing is to return to root causes of racialism that have not disappeared in the twenty-first century.
From Memmi's viewpoint, racism --- or more broadly, heterophobia --- will not be disappearing. At best, its effects can be mitigated. This is not a pessimistic analysis since, he argues, racism lies structured within the possibilities for social address to human difference. Given the racial hierarchies constructed under colonial rule, hierarchies that relied on positive and negative valuations of human difference, resistance to colonialism relied upon an affirmation of universalism that denied human differences. This denial of difference emerged from the best of human impulses and for many years, Memmi reports, he was content to let it rest. Yet human difference does exist and this book is his return to the subject.
Summarizing his points, Memmi writes "Differences can exist or not exist. Differences are not in themselves good or bad. One is not racist or anti-racist in pointing out or denying differences, but one is racist in using them against someone to one's own advantage." This observation provides Memmi with an argumentative springboard into an assertion that racism is the most widespread of human social features, one that is present in nearly all of humanity. "The temptation of racism is the most commonly shared thing in the world," he writes. Thus, to be human is to be racist, and human institutions are as vulnerable to racism as individuals.
One danger of Memmi's concept is that it approaches the naturalization of racism, as where he identifies racism as a manifestation of human aggression. While this equation is unquestionably a valid one, it presumes that insofar as aggression represents a natural instinct so too does racism. Yet aggression is only one feature of an entire nest of human instincts, and no consideration appears here as to how other instinctual behaviors contribute to or prevent racism. Memmi's exposition is also somewhat limited by its consideration of racism within a gain-loss behavior model, whereas illogic has a greater role in racism than logic. Such an overt calculus of benefits, on the other hand, helps make quite clear the unvoiced thinking that informs opposition to affirmative action and other anti-racialist political initiatives.
Since socialization is the major control against aggression, so too racism is subject to anti-racist socialization. After two sections addressing the social phenomenology of racism, a third section entitled 'Treatment' leads readers into a discussion of strategies for civil opposition. Memmi advocates developing an intense consciousness of racism in order to create an awareness of its continual definition of social presences. A form of mental double-entry bookkeeping that re-writes statements onto another group in order to identify unsustainable racial or ethnic generalizations is one practice of such a consciousness. Interestingly, Memmi mentions John Howard Griffin's self-transformative autobiographical journey, Black Like Me, as a model of experiencing the world of others.
By 'treatment,' however, Memmi does not invoke medicalization for racism and he prefers to deal with group hatreds in terms other than those of abnormal psychology. To the contrary, given its common presence, racism is a normative human condition. Education is the most viable mode of treatment, and teachers are the front line of anti-racism. "The struggle against racism requires a continual pedagogy, from infancy to death," he writes. Further, that "teaching must also address itself to the social, to the collective" in order to achieve lucidity and effect.
Perhaps the least tenable and most debatable section of the book lies in its final and mostly rhetorical argument in favor of universalism. Ironically, one sees here the same profoundly decent human impulse that characterized Memmi's own reaction in his early university classes where he listened to students deny human difference. As Memmi calls for a universalism that passes "from being just a philosophy to becoming an activity" that resists all forms of domination, he voices the undeniable validity of political internationalism. Yet false claims of ideological universalism --- i.e. the supposed naturalism of a 'free' market --- have been undeniably complicit in establishing economic globalism. Universalism in the sense of reciprocal human decency is a civilized hope, but the precise social contours of that hope remain vague here. The forced global submission of labor to capital, however, relies on another sense of political universalism. In failing to capture this latter aspect of universalism as enablement for globalism, Memmi's conclusions do seem deficient at a time when resistance means localism. The terms of economic subordination that define racial and ethnic others as servants of the First World represent an outstanding postmodern form of racism.
Steve Martinot's introduction and notes to the translation are excellent and exceedingly well-informed. Kwame Anthony Appiah's quite useless preface ulgifies the front of the volume. Its half-dozen paragraphs serve as patronage rather than thoughtfulness, and publishers should avoid this sort of name-grubbing.
Albert Memmi needs no sponsorship. He writes with his own ethical voice, one which emerges from a belief that "the refusal of racism is the condition for all theoretical and practical morality." In the days of Haider's advent to power, reading Memmi is preparation for practical morality.
University of Minnesota Press, 2000; Originally published as Le Racisme, Gallimard, 1982.